Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The dreamlife of artists

with 4 comments

Sigmund Freud

Last week, I finished reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, essentially for the first time. I’ve long been familiar with parts of it, but I’d never managed to work through the entire thing from cover to cover, although I suspected that I’d find it useful as a writer. (David Mamet, for one, recommends it to aspiring screenwriters in On Directing Film, noting that the sequence of cuts in movies has affinities to the procession of imagery in dreams.) What I’ve found is that while Freud’s reputation has taken hit after hit in recent years, the caricatured version of his ideas that most of us have absorbed has little to do with his real body of work. Freud was a frighteningly inventive and perceptive thinker—and also an excellent essayist—who was right about most of the big things, even if many of the particulars, as ingenious as they are, no longer stand up to scrutiny. And nowhere is his originality more clearly on display than in The Interpretation of Dreams, which at its heart is a probing, sometimes difficult, but always enlightening act of literary analysis on the most intractable texts imaginable.

What Freud is really proposing, in fact, is nothing less than a general theory of creativity, except that it happens to take place in a part of the brain that we aren’t used to observing. In Freud’s conception, a dream originates as a repressed wish, often from early childhood, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be sexual in nature: it can reflect other physical and emotional needs, as well as such desires as those for power, respect, fulfillment, or the love and safety of those close to us. This primal wish is united with details from the day before—the more trivial and insignificant the better—that happen to provide raw material for the wish to take on a concrete form. The result is then subjected to several additional processes that make the underlying meaning harder to discern. There’s condensation, in which multiple dream thoughts are fused into a single object or image; displacement, in which an unsettling wish is transferred to something else or transformed into its opposite; and the tendency for dreams to depict abstract concepts and feelings in visual terms, often in bewildering ways that owe more to wordplay and association than to waking logic.

The Interpretation of Dreams

Finally, there’s a kind of editing function involved, an attempt by the brain to rework all of this ungainly material into something resembling a coherent narrative. (Freud notes that this interstitial imagery, as the mind stitches together unfiltered components from the unconscious into a sequence of events, is usually the least convincing part of the dream.) And while I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the overall validity of Freud’s ideas, I can’t help but think that this a surprisingly accurate account of how the creative process works in waking life. A story or work of art generally originates in deep-seated impulses—ideas and feelings that have been percolating in the artist’s inner life for some time—but it builds itself up from more recent pieces, images or fragments of experience that have lately caught the creator’s eye. These elements from the real world are progressively condensed, displaced, and dramatized in tangible ways. And ultimately, they’re edited and revised, often at more than one stage in the process, so that the result has a logic that wasn’t present in earlier drafts, but at the risk, as Freud identified, of ending up with something calculated and unpersuasive.

Whether this means that creative thought really is a kind of dream, as so many artists have suggested, or that creativity and dreaming are two aspects of the same process exercised at different times, is something I won’t try to settle here. I will say, however, that I’ve grown increasingly convinced of the importance of listening to the lessons that dreams present. (Freud points out, for instance, that dreams often express temporal or causal logic in spatial terms, so that instead of showing one event causing another, the two events are simply shown side by side. This seems like a promising area of exploration for writers, who are often called upon to compress long chains of causality into a single scene or image.) As Freud, Jung, and others have pointed out, our conscious mind is there for a reason: it’s what allows us to form societies, build bridges, and write novels that can be understood by more than one person, and none of this would be possible if we didn’t keep the unconscious under control. Like an analyst, however, a writer needs to make incursions into those deeper levels on a regular basis, while always sustained by diligence and craft, and in both cases, we may find that our dreams can point the way.

Written by nevalalee

June 16, 2014 at 9:40 am

4 Responses

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  1. Smart, engaging post. I liked what you said about our creative thoughts being a kind of dream. Kind of reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe in a way. Also, that picture of Freud would make an amazing meme.


    June 16, 2014 at 10:05 am

  2. Thanks!


    June 17, 2014 at 6:06 pm

  3. Very interesting post. I agree that Freud was very perceptive but often given a bad name. In a recent book I read, The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran, the neurologist says that many of Freud’s observations seem to correspond to what he has seen in psychiatric/neuropathological patients.

    This post makes me want to read Freud’s book on dreams–I have been meaning to but never gotten around to it. The closest I have got is an illustrated biography of Freud. I reviewed that on my site, and can post the link if you are interested.


    July 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm

  4. Please do! I’ve read a bit of Freud here and there, and Interpretation of Dreams is probably the best place to start, although it can be heavy going at times.


    July 22, 2014 at 8:47 pm

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